What the hell happened in Cleveland?
Sixteen years ago this week, when I was fresh out of school and working for the Democratic National Committee, I helped staff a team of operatives at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. We were there to do opposition research and counter-messaging. Mostly I ran copies, typed up talking points, dodged credential monitors, pestered reporters, and ate way too many cheesesteaks.
A few weeks later, I was in Los Angeles for the DNC, which consisted mostly of sitting in ridiculous traffic between advance work for various events, 4:00am wake up calls to get my boss to morning show interviews, and trying not to sweat through my suit too early in the day. It was a month or so full of insane hours, crazy memories, and weird experiences, like collapsing in exhaustion and falling asleep in the back row of a Barbara Streisand concert on our last night in LA.
The coolest part of it all to me was seeing the behind-the-scenes sophistication of the speakers and speechwriting operation. In LA, there was a full mockup of the podium and teleprompters behind the stage, where speakers rehearsed and remarks were vetted. At the time, I had yet to earn any of my speechwriting chops, but it was fascinating to witness the steps that research, communications, and programming staff took to ensure that speakers maintained alignment with campaign themes, that remarks matched the narrative for the night and the week, and that each speech added or reinforced something to the convention presentation and the campaign itself.
Which brings me to the circus that happened in Cleveland this week.
Make Conventions Great Again
Regardless of your political views, it’s hard to look at what happened at the Republican National Convention and believe that it’s a success. It’s also hard to see or hear or read the remarks from Cleveland this week and not think that speechwriting is a lost art. For all but a few instances, most of the speeches have been incoherent ramblings, filled with cliches and platitudes, devoid of specific policy solutions or personal anecdotes about the candidate, and completely divorced from the stated themes for each night.
There was no connective tissue among speakers, speeches, or even within the nightly themes. Monday was supposed to focus on safety, but quickly got mired in a plagiarism scandal. Tuesday was intended to focus on the economy, but instead featured Ben Carson claiming that Hillary Clinton worships Lucifer and Chris Christie (who himself is actually under federal investigation) doing his best “burn the witch” impression in a vaguely gross mock trial. Wednesday was supposed to be about making “America First,” a phrase which is rooted in anti-Semitic nationalism, and ole Mike Pence’s coming out party to a national audience. But Mike was all but forgotten amid Ted Cruz’s refusal to endorse Trump, and the ensuing mob anger. Thursday’s theme was supposed to be about unity, and making “America one again,” but Trump’s lengthy rant did anything but that.
The focus of the RNC was always on darkness, death, and destruction, without any pivot or contrast to what would actually be done about. No vision, no hope, no solutions, other than Trump’s own perverted cult of personality and warped self-idolatry.
And then there’s the plagiarism of Melania Trump’s speech. First, the tradition of spouses having to speak to the convention is silly and outdated. Second, Mrs. Trump seemed to have been horribly ill-served by campaign and/or party and/or corporate staff. And third, plagiarizing is remarkably easy to avoid. It’s not all that complicated to express common, shared values with different words or with suitable attribution. But to copy the bulk of two full paragraphs, and a consecutive sequence of two dozen words is oddly difficult to do by accident. Like one in a trillion chance.
Why does any of this matter? Plagiarism is a serious issue (though it’s far from the worst thing that’s happened at the RNC). It’s sparked speculation and scandal, it’s ended candidacies and careers. But worse yet, it signifies a level of laziness, incompetence, and entitlement that falls far short of what we deserve in our public leaders.
Make “…All Press Is Good Press!” Again
In the wake of the plagiarism controversy at the RNC this week, Donald Trump posted a tweet that expressed the perfect explanation for his campaign — and one that’s been a pet peeve of mine ever since he declared his candidacy.
“All press is good press” is a horribly outdated and inaccurate belief, but as far as I can tell it’s an apt description of his communications strategy. He’s often hailed as a media genius, and through the primary season he certainly leveraged his own celebrity to his advantage. But he constantly steps on his own message, he’s accrued the highest negatives of any party nominee ever, and his “all press is good press!” belief has yielded a week of convention stories like about how he’s subverting US policy toward Russia, how he can’t get the theme for his own convention right, how he doesn’t pay his bills, how he may have committed FEC violations, how he lies about charitable giving, how he has a decades-long record of racial discrimination, how his candidacy has inspired a former KKK leader to run for Senate, and how he might be a sociopath.
Maybe he’s right, and all press is good press. But I have my doubts.
Make Speeches Great Again
Last night, Trump gave his convention speech. It was the longest nomination speech on record, which was necessary to dive into all the nuanced details of his policy solutions for economic growth, immigration reform, foreign policy, criminal justice reform, paid sick leave, reducing child care co…ah, I’m just kidding.
His speech offered none of that. It was a shouty, angry rant by a humanized version of an internet comments section. It included coded and uncoded language for racial discrimination, nationalism, and isolationism. And it painted an apocalyptic picture of a dark and dangerous America — that doesn’t really exist — while offering exactly zero solutions, other than claims that, “I alone can fix it.” And “I am your voice.”
This is the stuff of authoritarian dictators who create horribly bleak outlooks and position themselves as the only salvation. It’s dangerous and destructive to democratic freedom. As former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum wrote, it’s like “Nixon without the optimism.”
You don’t have to take my word for how awful, unfunny, and serious this is. These are comments from the deputy editor of the Wall Street Journal opinion page, Mitt Romney’s campaign chair, and John McCain’s daughter.
I’m not suggesting that there aren’t real problems in our country or that many people aren’t facing massive challenges every day or that there is not legitimate frustrations at work for many. Far from it.
But a thin-skinned, narcissistic bully who traffics in fear, intimidation, lies, and bigotry, and who doesn’t grasp how our constitution or democracy functions, is not fit for these times or this office.
And if all of this is leaving you feeling depressed or discouraged, make sure you vote in November.
Because, while facts may not matter in politics anymore, math does.
This doesn’t mean he can’t win, because he definitely can.
But Trump’s path to victory depends largely on garnering the same Republican support that Romney had in 2012, while also either suppressing turnout of 2012 Obama voters or getting 2012 Obama voters to go for for Trump in 2016. That’s a somewhat simplified outlook, but it’s also just just how the electoral math plays out. Which is why the RNC can only be viewed by a spectacular failure of messaging and communications.
Instead of broadening his appeal, Trump narrowed it. Instead of unifying his own party, he instigated conflict with would-be political allies that will matter in swing states. Instead of pivoting to a more engaging message that might appeal to women, Latinos, African-Americans, younger voters, and others, Trump hardened his message around fear and loathing that was popular among hard-core GOP primary voters but excludes millions of Americans.
There was no vision, no coherence, and no competence on display. There was plenty to be afraid of, but little if anything to be a part of.
There was no place for anybody but him.
Trump’s RNC was the communications equivalent of self-immolation.